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"Scared of Santa: Scenes of Terror in Toyland" Book Review

Offbeat Humor in Family Photos Capturing Kids Afraid of Santa Claus

About.com Rating 3 Star Rating

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Courtesy Harper Collins
It's a holiday rite of passage for families who celebrate Christmas - the annual visit with Santa and the obligatory photo capturing our littlest loved ones at their worst, bug-eyed with terror and yelling a blue streak. Isn't this supposed to be fun?

Let's just stop for a moment and stare nakedly at the dark secret that mothers harbor in this season of light and love. It's something we rarely admit to themselves, let alone our kids. You know what I'm talking about. It happened to us as children and we hated it. But somehow, we conveniently forgot the fear once we became parents.

Devil in a Red Suit

Here's the cold hard truth - as chilling as a snowball shoved down your back - if you can handle the truth:
Mom was the one who wanted your picture taken with Santa. Not you. You didn't want to sit on that creepy old guy's lap, right?

Two moms - Denise Joyce and Nancy Watkins - acknowledge the unspeakable in Scared of Santa: Scenes of Terror in Toyland, a compact collection of over 250 photos of children screaming for their lives in the clutches of the jolly old elf himself. Covering over 75 years of humiliation and fear, the photos range from tiny toddler terror to jaded preteen boredom, with a couple of inert pets thrown in for good measure.

How did they amass what they describe as this "get-me-outta-here gallery"? It helps that Joyce and Watkins are editors at the Chicago Tribune and that this book has been years in the making.

In 2003 and 2006, a feature in the Tribune's "Q" section asked readers to send in photos of frightened children with Santa. After hundreds were received, the best were posted at the Tribune's website, where they generated close to 30% of the total visits to the paper's website for the year.

Be Afraid...Be Very Afraid.

Courtesy Harper Collins/Chicago Tribune
In Scared of Santa, Joyce and Watkins not only reprint the photos but also take a stab at captioning each one with varying degrees of success. Some don't need captions, while others are enhanced by a few words of explanation. But the captions that do work really drive home the quirkiness of the moment.

There's this gem (at right) from page 100, where an unnervingly catatonic Santa stares off-camera into nothingness while four siblings pose warily:

Could Somebody Check Santa's Pulse?
Note how the closer the children are to Santa, the more scared they are. In descending order of fear, Olivia, Aric, Andrew, and Amanda Arduini, 1979. Sent by mom Jan.
Or an anecdote from page 249 that accompanies a vintage Christmas black-and-white photo postcard:
Jingle All the Way...To Hell
Patsy (left) and Diane Slager, circa 1935. "My mother recalls that the man had a red nose and alcohol on his breath," writes Patsy's daughter, Jane Rix. We're shocked. Shocked.

"Whatever They Pay Santa, It Isn't Enough"

If you're a mother who's forced an unwilling child onto Santa's lap, you'll nod in recognition as dozens of photos remind you of the tricks it took to get him or her there. A photo of a toddler clutching Barney the Dinosaur dragged me back down memory lane as I recalled shoving the purple pile of plush into my own daughters' hands to shush their frantic shrieks and desperate tears.

Now teenagers, my kids got just as much of a kick out of this book as I did. (But they still find Santa disconcertingly creepy.)

In the end, after viewing the photos and reading hundreds of tales of tortuous Santa visits, the authors acknowledge that "Whatever they pay Santa, it isn't enough."

You're Crying Now, But You'll Thank Me Later

For little more than the priciest Hallmark Christmas card, you can pick this book up and have a few laughs with your mother, your now-grown siblings, or your own children who've suffered at your hands but will likely extend the intergenerational misery of a visit with Santa when it's their turn to become parents...because as every mom knows, it's just too cute to pass up.

Scared of Santa: Scenes of Terror in Toyland
by Denise Joyce and Nancy Watkins

Paperback, 274pp. ISBN: 978-0-06-149099-6
Harper October 2008

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